One of New Zealand poetry’s liveliest presences is pretty much an absence. Over the years, John Gallas has published nine books with Carcanet, one of the UK’s major poetry publishers, but back in the land of his birth this ‘funny, melancholy, and just plain weird’ writer is barely visible. There are a few local outings—some titles with Cold Hub, a spot in The Best of Best New Zealand Poems—but that’s about it. I met John for coffee last November at the British Library. I was briefly in London en route to Manchester. John, who had ducked down from Leicester, was between cycling expeditions. I wanted to talk about his forthcoming book, The Little Sublime Comedy, an ambitious and unlikely new-zealandising of Dante’s Divine Comedy. I ended up asking him if he would be up for a longish interview—partly to mark the publication of the new book, and partly to bring the poet himself a little more into view. What follows is an email conversation that took place sporadically between December 2016 and February 2017. I would send John a somewhat abrupt question, often just before turning in for the night, and would wake in the morning to find his long, astonishing answers.
I thought we might start with the where and when questions. I don’t want to be Wordsworthian about it, but can you say something about where you grew up and how much your childhood places shaped you? Do you have a rural background or an urban one?
I was born in Wellington but we moved to Richmond when I was little, and I grew up there. Dad was a mad keen mountain sort of person, so every chance we got we were off to Lake Rotoiti and Mount Robert. We had a bach there, but in the summer we tramped up and stayed in the huts and made little boats to float on the tarns, and played cards and Dad told stories at night. I really loved the light of the tilley lamp, and getting it going. And that paraffinny sort of smell. In the winter we skied and did ski-walks and I can still get the smells of the tow rope, and wet, icy wool, mittens and sweaters, the rattle of my old ski-goggles and the kind of screech of ice when you did a stop, and the sprays of soft snow when it was powdery. Dad came from Austria and he was a classy skier, and he could yodel and he called walking on skis langlauf.
A yodelling Austrian father! I think I’d thought Gallas was a Scottish name.
Our ‘real’ name is Ganzl with an umlaut: I think Dad changed it to our even older family name Gallas, which is Austro-Hungarian, to avoid appearing a bit too German in New Zealand. He and his mum left after the Anschluss via Istanbul to New Zealand, and Nana settled and lived in Silverstream. Mountains in his heart and soul. He loved New Zealand and never wanted to go back to Austria. I remember standing on his shoulders on top of the Hochstetter Dome holding my ice axe in the air, to reach 10,000 feet. And met Sir Ed on the way down cor blimey.
So I’m entirely wrong to give you a dash of Scottish ancestry?
No, my mother’s dad, a tailor, was from Scone, and he and Grandma married secretly at Blairgowrie church and ran off to New Zealand as their parents did not approve. They were pursued by a man who also loved Grandma; he was arrested in Hataitai and deported. Mum was born in Wellington. I remember most Grandad’s mighty greenhouse out the back up on one of those huge gardens that was sort of raised on a concrete wall, with steps in it. Green grapes hanging. And a massive Japanese pot in the dark back room.
Sorry about the ancestral digression. Can we go back to your childhood?
The Richmond bit didn’t have any or much effect as far as memory or, um, poetic impression that lasts goes. It turns out it was all Mt Robert, the Lake, and the bush and tramping. I remember one of the first times I went up the Mountain. I was six I think and the snow was so deep Dad went first and made a tunnel, or a sort of channel, and the sides were above my head.
Have you ever gone up there as an adult?
Well I come back to New Zealand every year and every time I do the tramp up the track and stay there for a couple of nights, and it’s still wonderful, though it’s quite deserted these days, even the ski huts, because there’s a new ski field far away now. But then that makes it more mine, and I kind of like that.
So as far as being ‘Shaped by Childhood’ goes, education, school days, week by week ordinary stuff had no effect at all, but the bush and the mountain and the lake kind of took over as the main part of my life—our lives, I reckon; Mum and my brother felt the same—and The Little Sublime Comedy starts at what we used to call First Clearing, where the zigzag track comes out into the open and you get a view right down over the lake. And at the end of the poem the second to last Song tries to capture some of that, describing the track, and Cup Creek, where there was a nail in the tree that used to have an enamel cup hanging there, for a drink. After Mum and Dad had both died I went up and put a cup there again, with their names on it. I don’t know if it’s still there.
Did you read much? Were there particular books back then that mattered to you?
I wasn’t a child that read read read. I can’t remember a single book, let alone one that had an effect on me, until I read Oliver Twist and bits of Tennyson at school when I was 14, and Sons and Lovers in the Lower Sixth. I remember thinking Wordsworth and Coleridge and all those Romantic Poets were getting pretty excited about some pretty pathetic bits of landscape. I do remember a story about cannibals that frightened the hell out of me when I read it at my grandparents’ place, and a great big shiny white Aladdin book with a kind of cellophane cover you could lift off with gold patterns on it . . .
So what was it that took you, way down the line, to the University of Otago, where I think you majored in English? Was there an actual decision, or just slow drift?
I guess it was slow drift. I remember thinking that I wanted to be part of a world where people made things. From a very young age, I wanted to be a tree surgeon. I still feel it, and if I had my working life again that’s what I’d try to do. And somehow, writing, literature, all that, belonged, to my way of thinking, with plumbing, electricianing, mechanics, through pottery, furniture-making and keeping bees, making cheese, drawing and painting, to writing poems and books. And, really, it’s turned out a bit like that: hard work, some natural affinity with the skills involved to start with, learning to refine those skills over the years, and making things for other people to have and enjoy.
So when I studied Eng Lit at Otago, and gradually slid the Old English–Old Norse way, I suppose I was—as well as just enjoying it all, which I really really was—cutting and pasting a manual for my own writing out of snippets of what I admired, what I remembered, what seemed well done and worth saving. At the same time I was trying to delve into that big old matter of why we like something we read, and don’t so much like other things, whether it’s predetermined by receptors manufactured by childhood experience, or some less fathomable shape of your soul that calls to itself things it recognises.
Why do I like Chaucer and Hardy and John Donne and Old English poetry so much? Lime green? Leonard Cohen? Shutting my mouth and making things—from poems to painted tiles, collages and even the occasional piece of music? It’s a kind of need. To make ideas into things, and you can hand things round, and it isn’t talking, because it’s become looking and reading and listening.
I assume it was the Old English–Old Norse thing that took you off to the UK? There you were at Oxford, presumably aiming for an academic career. How did all that work out?
I was lucky, I got a Commonwealth Scholarship to Merton College to do Eng Lit 1100–1400 including a big wodge of Old Icelandic, along with Malory, Old English Poetry, and the mystery plays. All my text books had pictures of beardy warriors with axes, and knights charging through the countryside on the covers. I thought that was better than moony Shelleys and Dryden in wigs.
Going to Oxford, I mean both getting there and being there, was the big chance and the big change, and I put all my life and effort into both. I hitch-hiked overland from Tehran, through Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Turkey and Europe, and saw and did stuff that was kind of Only In Books, like walking round Persepolis with a goat, being the only person one day in the ruins of Babylon, marching up the plains on Troy, going barefoot in Damascus (this was 1970 after all), seeing Tyre, Iskenderun, Shiraz, the mosques in Isfahan, the golden domes of Qum, Baghdad, Aleppo, the dervishes in Konya, the tombs of Rumi and Hafez . . . Still sounds like a book really.
And on it went, because Oxford was like a good dream, and I worked hard, thought hard, and lived hard. It was a time I suppose when mind and body are at their brightest and, well, sort of cleanest hopes and performance, and to have three years of that at that exact time of your young life in a city so gobsmackingly exciting and beautiful, was to a new-arrived Kiwi like living at twice the volume of everything I was.
That’s never gone away, that combination of the active mind, the busy body and the wish to make something out of it all that actually shines. The Old Icelandic and Old English was a never-ending delight, my tutors were all thrillingly loony (I thought) and I wrote poems that were all gushy and rubbish, which I have since totally thrown away. But it set a kind of note of expectation, a sort of sung single note that stayed with me and reminded me, and still does, that with all that wonderment, I bloody should make an effort to do well.
I was glad to get out, though, after I finished, because Oxford, well, it kind of takes what you do and keeps it for itself, and I wanted to make things in a workshop, and not a palace.
I think that the deep thing that attracted me to the Old Norse world when I was a student was its steady fatalism. ‘Now there are two choices, and neither is good’ etc. I’m guessing that wasn’t the case for you. Or perhaps not importantly the case?
It was the Dark Side I Iiked about Old Icelandic tales but it was the individual elements that grabbed my soul: the weather, always mostly bad; the shut-up-and-do-it, no matter how grim; the neat little comments when something was considered or done (‘That was a bit tiring’, after an epic battle) and it was actually worth saying something, or you were obliged to; the persevering characters, intent and mum on their ponies, crossing the blank landscape on some unpleasant mission . . . and all written as a matter of fact.
It’s all there in my favourite, Sam Beckett, even to the humour that dogged persistence in the face of grimness brings: the drizzle; the silent intent, though sometimes incomprehensible; the going on. If you stick to yourself, somehow you can get through anything. I think Beckett even came to his plain (though not easy) style by seeing how it fitted that world.
What made you decide to stay in the UK then, John? An important relationship? A job offer? A small sigh in the heart at the thought of going home?
When I was 20, and finished at Oxford, and had a choice about where in the world to go and be, it really somehow didn’t matter why I did what I did. I could have probably had a hundred different lives according to places that kind of called me, places I thought I might like, and if there were reasons why I chose what I chose, which was England, then they were weirdly deep and shallow at the same time.
I could sit here now and be very serious about the why, but youth is its own beauty and I like to think of mine being free of the shackles of that kind of thought that sometimes weighs you down a bit when you’re older. Anyway, the decision turned out to be the Thing of My Life really, and shaped it, and what I write, and how I see the world.
I pine for New Zealand all the time, and I go there all the time—every year for a month or so for the last thirty years—and I write about it because when I go for just a couple of months everything is fresh and sharp and thrillingly wild. Of course, I choose my favourite places. I usually spend half the time in Karamea, at the end of the road, and tramp all over, walk the beaches, sit in the bush, climb mountains—well, big hills—and every second is precious and vivid because it is unusual and limited. I often think of Going Home for Good, but I’d rather New Zealand was a consuming and perpetual desire, which it is, than a place I take even remotely for granted or get tired of.
Now that’s a real Romantic View, and I kind of like that. I’m uprooted, and can therefore wander. I belong in two places at opposite sides of the earth, and that’s wonderful. They both have my heart and my soul; so those merry organs, so important for conceiving writing, have two chambers each, and can bleed into one another. Some friends, at both ends, say if I don’t commit myself to one or the other, then I can never really call myself Native, but I’m a double-Native, and I don’t remotely ignore or demean or favour one home over the other.
So make the case for England . . .
Well, it is perfectly a place that it is fine to be normal in, and leave the dreams to elsewhere, because there’s so much normal. Leicester City, walking in the domestic ruralness of Rutland, empty lanes, droves of Lincolnshire on my bike, the whole coast, Norfolk seaside towns, Ireland a twenty-minute plane ride away. (I biked there every holiday for ten years, did the whole coast, then north to south.) Paris is an hour on the train, Europe easy, the rest of the world, Samarkand, Bokhara, Tashkent, Mongolia, Iceland, India, Scandinavia a ferry ride away—you can be as busy as you want.
And I do love England. The weather suits me, and the landscape where’er you go is filled with poets and poems, farmers and cities, fences and hedgerows. Everything is known and tamed and owned and so has a special kind of gentle depth, which is the opposite of NZ’s thrillingly quite savage—yep, I think it’s quite savage where I go—land, almost completely devoid of the very things that inhabit England, I mean in the mind, like history, used and used and used land, and, of course, like I said, there are poets in the hedges and at the sea, and painters in the wind and the sunsets. The Mad John’s Walk I did last month was completely ‘informed’ by John Clare—following his route home from an asylum in the south—and all the landscape and life along the way had a literary softness and ghostliness in them that you couldn’t have in New Zealand. But then the naked thrill of tramping the Heaphy Track, the first bit along the coast, freed of any literary, historical or civilising associations makes for a bloody great cold fresh wind of the kind you never get blowing out your mind in England.
That’s all a bit long, but it’s the matter of my life: I want both, I need both. I have both, and I write about both, and the contrasts make me make a kind of effort to think and enjoy and explore (still, at my age), which makes me write. I have written lots of poems about Rutland, the fields, crows, snow on the hedges, churches, deserted byways, nature poems almost, about the Norfolk coast, about Lincolnshire, as well as taniwha caves near Puponga, the Fenian Goldfields near Karamea, and things in Tonga, Samoa, Vanuatu, Niue, Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, Hawaii, Cook Islands, Tahiti.
The Little Sublime Comedy is a New Zealand poem, but it’s informed by all the European and world literature and experiences I could lay my hands and feet on. If that works, then it’s a bit of a testament to making a choice of where to live without thought, when young, and then living through the wonderful consequences, and making poetry out of them.
In the biographical note on the Carcanet website, it says ‘In 1987 he threw away everything he had written, and started again’. Can you elaborate on that?
Now that’s an easier one. Being well schooled and academicised for years and years, up to the M.Phil at Oxford, what I wrote was Under the Influence. I found some kind of voice I was pleased with at last with two poems called ‘Borderguards’ and ‘Little Izmet’s Wedding’, both from a time when I Got Away and lived in Diyarbakir in south-eastern Turkey, and I chucked what had come, or gone, haha, before. It really was rubbish, and the process was a good one, because I kind of came through all the poets and other writers and styles where the percentage of influence visible in my poems was probably Considerable to a way of writing that Considered them, absorbed, rather than took over, what I loved, and helped to form, though it did not make the whole of, my own style. You can tell, perhaps, from my writing, that I admire Donne, Chaucer, Crabbe, Shelley, Stevie Smith and bits of Tennyson, but that, now, is pleasing because it’s not a high-percentage influence, but it is both incorporated and yet nudging about in the poems with a pleasant kind of, um, love.
I’ve been reviewed as a writer whose poems are ‘funny, melancholy, and just plain weird’ and I’m very happy with that: I like it best, and I feel best, when I write all three together, in various balances. It’s exciting to have thrown the old stuff away, and not be sort of burdened with silliness. You’ve cleared the early airs. I’m quite serious when it comes to writing, I try hard, and I don’t like failing to attempt to write a really good poem. I loved my childhood and early adulthood, they were perfect, and to keep the bad writing somehow would have taken those bad poems as representatives of that time in my life, when they were the flowers of others cut by me.
I feel you’ve somehow become—or let yourself become—invisible in New Zealand. As a writer, I mean. You’re not in the obvious poetry anthologies. Did you ever try to publish work back home in any sustained or serious way?
Well, from this distance I have tried; but there’s no continuance, and therefore no real profile. And when I come over every year all I want to do is trample through the bush and stay in a hut. I’ve had various pieces of writing in Sport and Landfall, a few in ‘Best NZ Poems’ anthologies, and, of course, two wonderful collections, Fucking Poets and Pacifictions, from Cold Hub in Lyttelton, but they are, I guess, a bit too few and far between to make any permanent effect on my being around as a poet—because, physically, I’m not.
I’d love to be a New Zealand Poet. Every time I do a reading in the UK I’m introduced as a ‘New Zealand Poet’, and at the St Magnus Festival in Orkney last year people would come up to talk after as much about experiences of going to and being in New Zealand as to talk about the poems and being a writer. This I like very much. However, that’s just about me, and not about my country. When I can do a reading and people don’t talk about visits to Rotorua and the Southern Alps, then I would be a New Zealand poet indeed . . . but of course that would be in New Zealand.
I’ve even written a great big, black, treacherous, funny, weird and probably melancholy novel called Bush Bastards, my only big prose thing, set in the South Island and full of violent gold-searching, and even a short prose thing called ‘newzealand’, no less, a Becketty struggle with the luminous memories of my childhood. So I’m there and thereabouts, but sadly not known to be. Perhaps The Little Sublime Comedy, so firmly set in a New Zealand frame, and frame of mind, might make the difference. Here’s hoping.
Are you a writer who has projects and a writing routine?
Both. Projects come from the decision to write a bunch of poems on a theme, having seen that sort of possibility in something I’ve just written, or from scratch, from the idea itself. This is a way of thinking-to-writing that appeals to me, and works for me.
At present I’m not writing ‘the occasional’ or even ‘the often’ poem at all but building a collection of love poems called The Extasie, finishing small collections about Niue, about Vanuatu, and ten Origami poems; and in the past, most of my collections/books have a sustaining sort of backbone-commonality—40 Lies consists of poems telling tales from ‘distant’ facts (Tchaikovsky once danced with Saint-Saëns, all Denmark’s Jews were sailed to safety in WW2, William Whiston was expelled from Cambridge for Islamic sympathies); Star City consists of ‘Excellent Men’, which is self-explanatory, and ‘The Coalville Divan’ is 100 sonnets each based on an old Persian proverb. The new book is a single Tale; Pacifictions about Pacific places; Fucking Poets describes 21 close encounters with historical poets; the poems in Fresh Air were all written outdoors; The Story of Molecule is a tale in sonnets; and so on.
So obviously strings, themes, commonalities, etc, are mostly my thing, and I love the way that echoes and sharings can be a part of the reading and writing experience. I think it adds something. Very rarely do I just write a poem on its own, unrelated to what has gone before or might come after.
So you don’t ever come at things in an impromptu, self-surprising way?
Not really. My conceiving and giving birth is a long and slow and yes horribly painful process. I hate it and love it in nearly equal measure. I do everything to avoid what I know is coming. I go biking, tramping, swimming, I read a book, visit friends, even travel afar. And lurking, and forming inside like that Alien in the film, is what I know will be the next poem. It starts quite arbitrarily, usually, though not always. And in good Metaphysical style it usually begins with seeing something which provokes thought, or a need for depiction, or, of course, and best of all, both together.
Most of the poems in The Extasie come from sights while walking and biking. And this is where it gets fascinating. To take one example: ‘The Little Leaf that Would Not Fall’ was something I saw while walking down the Measham Canal towpath; a small autumn leaf that was eddying about, even rising again, and refusing to hit the ground. The germ of a poem is set. Can germs be set? Anyway, I’m infected, and the process begins.
Of course, the poems in the collection being all about Love, there is a kind of thrilling restriction on what you can now, profitably, from the point of view of writing a poem that will fit in the collection, think. In this case, the intellectual excitement came from the collision of that restriction (which is of course a liberation) with the natural interpretation of a leaf that would not fall, which is, naturally, and for everyone, an image of something that refuses to die. The poem deals with this. The application to Love is obvious but now a writer must balance the expression of, first, the actual scene (‘I saw a leaf . . .’), second, the assembling of his/her thoughts about that very scene into some kind of neat pattern or surprise (it would not die, our love will not) and, third, successfully choose and execute a form, words, rhymes, rhythms, process, neatness, and a hundred other things to do with just the expression of the previous two things, the scene and the thoughts.
This is bloody serious stuff, and it’s not surprising that I try to escape from the machinery, which doesn’t stop once it’s started until it’s done, by any means, while at the same time knowing and longing for that process to go on until it reaches, paradoxically, its highest depth. It’s exhausting, it matters, and the thrill of having done it is sublime. Then, of course, it’s up to readers to decide if it was all bloody worth it.
But I take it you yourself mostly find the actual experience of capturing the poem bloody worth it . . .
This last, the process of putting the scene-and-thought into words, i.e. making a poem of it, fascinates me to hell. We struggle, we cross out, we are dissatisfied, we are satisfied, we are thrilled, we despair, we cut it, we expand, we read it tomorrow and it’s crap, we read it tomorrow and it makes our heart leap . . . how and why? Why is one word, here, or there, exactly right, and all others wrong, and how do we know it?
It’s like the poem is already written in its perfection somewhere—up in the sky, under the ground, in some Immortal’s hands, from some past or future existence maybe—and the poet has to find it, or chime it, and that’s how he/she knows it’s right. Why else do I sit, which I usually do when writing, with a thesaurus, and a rhyming dictionary, and an iPad set on Google, several dictionaries and, according to the poem, some reference books, searching for that word or phrase which we are grumpily stressed until we find, when we know it’s right. I try hard. I don’t see the point in writing poems otherwise.
And maybe the poem does exist already behind a kind of Platonic veil, and the poet is (I would never say merely, it’s too big for that) finding it, like hacking your way through the bush to the welcome hut. If science could ever discover parallel existences of creative objects in some Time conundrum it would at least explain the poet’s fight and awful trial, battering his or her way to a recognised perfection. I’d want to be the first to know.
This sounds totally exhausting.
Well, it ain’t all struggle and horror and avoidance and suffering, it’s also a thrill, a delight, a weepy-happiness and a smiley satisfaction. That Happy Part for me, however, is still deep. Whenever I think about my life, and what I have done, sitting there, like a strata, or is it a stratum, of rock, is the fact that I am a poet, and that foundation, that rock forbids and disallows all vertigo, depression, pointlessness and wastes of time. It never goes away, and so life always matters. And it lies under all the other merry things we gad about and do to pass the time between here and the grave. And that’s bloody good.
Where did The Little Sublime Comedy come from? Had it been on your mind in some form or other for some time, so that it crept up on you? Or did it come to you—at least as an idea—relatively suddenly?
In 2007 I decided to read all the Great Works I’d given a miss out of cowardice or pretended unconcern (probably they are the same), and did it: Moby-Dick, War and Peace, the Beckett trilogy, Ariosto (for god’s sake), The Faerie Queene (which I loved entirely), Proust, The Ring and the Book, Middlemarch, Don Quixote, Boccaccio, Njal’s Saga and, of course, Dante. Impressive, eh. After Dante, I had my usual short—usually a day or two—Think About It. There was lots of Dante activity round the booky world at the time, I can’t remember what exactly, I think Clive James was translating it, and someone had written a book about its Science, and someone else had written one of those do-we-need-this-oh-why-not volumes called something like The Use of the Impersonal Verb in Dante’s Ecclesiastical Dactyls, and lots more.
But it was an unrelated matter that set me going: the Dante thing was fished back up because of a radio programme about, get this, the Rietdijk-Putnam Argument concerning the simultaneity of time and space, where each point in the universe may have its own set of events that make up its Present, so that there is what is called a Block Universe where all the events that have ever happened are held fixed in an extra dimension. Now of course it doesn’t matter a bugger if I misunderstood the intricacies of this revelation, which had me hanging on to the radio in excitement, really, but what I got from it was the idea that something you do can be here, now, and that seemed to me to be the key to Reward and Punishment for Behaviour, if such a thing is to be entertained. There’s a song on the last Leonard Cohen album that considers a world without God/Love in which ‘no one that you hurt could ever heal’, and that’s the same sort of thing.
So you were off.
So I was off. The historical details and digressions, and the medieval worldview of Dante had seemed to me when I read The Divine Comedy, and I hide my head here to deflect the blows of angry fans, a bit like a pie-crust or the edges of a pizza that you leave when you’ve eaten the good bits. And I thought, this is my job, to get bloody Modern, and research (hurray!) the time and space theories, fit them with the fact that a sin or a good deed, or a moment of doubt between the two might be held in that time and space forever, and as punishment or reward you are made to stay there. I did tons of reading and research, and the Songs in The LSC concerning the theory of perpetual punishment, doubt or reward are spot-on thought out, and not an airy-fairy bunch of shallow bits.
I guess that was the main scaffolding, and once that was in place, I could build and, more importantly, I was thrilled, inspired and impatient to build. Next, of course, I had to decide on the categories of behaviour that might, now, and not in Dante’s religious-difference-obsessed world, be considered Right. This took, I do not lie, about a year. I made endless charts, boxes, moral classifications and explanations, to put in Modern Sins and Modern Virtues and Modern In-Betweens—and then of course had to rank them according to severity or admirableness as I was going to have the equivalent to Circles, as in Dante.
This is what the sports commentators call a big ask . . .
You see my problem, but hey it was a great problem and got the brain going like a bloody fever, which doesn’t happen all that often in life and is all the more astonishing and thrilling when you discover all the brain that is there to use that you haven’t called on very much or very often in the usual run of things. I read moral tracts, behavioural research, top tens and bottom tens, theories about Sin and Goodness from Lydgate to T.S. Eliot, and finally hit upon a chart, a scaffolding, that served.
So I had my worldview, and I had my moral scheme. Now I needed characters and settings. I considered my Guide, or Guides, first. There was absolutely no doubt right away that I wanted Beckett as my Guide, as an anti-Virgil doomy with a fabulous line in a good laugh. However (to jump the gun, but it needs explaining here) there was the problem that Sam would Fade when it came to the more jolly parts of the upper reaches of good behaviour, where optimism and merry zipping about were not quite his style. There needed (well, Dante had the same problem, in a slightly different way) to be someone to hand the baton to when things got a bit cheerful. So this was Joy and Lineout, the dog, followed by The Pohutukawa Tree, whose beauty, humour and Green Credentials, and amazing ability to ski at speed, fitted with Heaven, or The Good Place.
As for the characters for each Sin, each Havering, and each Virtue, the characters that would be undergoing or enjoying the punishments or rewards in each Circle . . . well, this took me another half a year. In the end, I gave them A–Z letters in The Bad Place, which expanded into Homonyms and then Names as we progressed towards human fulfilment. And in the conceiving of these characters, which included the NZ animals, especially of The Better Place (Purgatory), the hideous punishing creatures of The Bad Place, and the skiing phenomena of The Good Place, my poetic labours came into full blast. This was because this was the point (another year or so) when my personal thoughts, memories and considerations came into play, in the writing of each Song.
There’s a lot of scenery, if that’s the word, in there.
The scenery was easier. Hell is a series of metal rooms joined by pus-filled, rusty and noisy, badly working lifts. Sam Beckett loves this. Purgatory is a mighty tree, around which (like that Elf habitation in LOTR) curls a bannistered footpath, winding upwards towards Heaven, joined by air-floating gondolas poled about by NZ wildlife. And Heaven, and this is really really personal, is a vast expanse of rainbow-shifting coloured snow, joined by swiftly skiing slaloms and jumps done with transporting delight by the travellers between circles, and by Me and The Tree. My own Heaven was, and remains, Mt Robert skifields. The LSC begins as I am plucked from the side of the mountain, in embarrassingly erotic circumstances, above the glorious Lake Rotoiti, and take off into the moral universe.
So this is all research, groundwork, infrastructure?
Yes. Then all that was needed (another four years, honestly, mostly to do with getting the Tone right) was to write the thing. This, of course, is much less explainable, and much more a matter of simple labour. Surrounded by reference books, iPads, computers, googles, rhyming dictionaries, various translations of Dante, thesauruses, volumes of NZ birds, animals, trees and plants, my vast collection of notes and queries, charts and character-assignments, books on time and space, some tone-giving Beckett volumes, dictionaries of slang, usage, place-names, phrase & fable, superstitions, quotations, and just plain bloody dictionaries, including the mighty Oxford, I got down to it. I made a pact with my own sanity that I would persevere without cowardly backing-out under pressure. (Like they say a cat when it can’t get at a bird will start frantically washing itself as a kind of replacement activity, so I, to avoid writing intensely, and it’s all intense, even light verse, will go off, as I think I’ve said, to do anything else at the drop of a hat to avoid this gruelling business.) This is the only time I’ve written with such intensity for so long (years!) and it shows. I’m not talking about Quality but about Density—of Thought, Style, Content and Intent.
Can you say a bit more about tone?
The hardest thing of all. Of course it is Becketty to begin, that lofty observation that topples by its own intellectual loftiness into a kind of world-wise bathos (‘Nothing is funnier than unhappiness’, ‘What is that unforgettable line?’, and, for me, the key quotation for The LSC, ‘How one hoped above, on and off. With what diversity.’) and, I hope, kind of softens, without losing intellectual rigour, into a tone reflecting enjoyment, which must be, after all, the reward, or natural way, of being, somehow, Good.
I wrote and rewrote this poem in its entirety I would say, oh, about fifteen times. Each word, each phrase, each character, each event, each style (from little snatches of poems, banalities, Grand Heroics, Mock Heroics, commonplaces, High Pompousness, scientific-speak, humour both black and white, and a thousand others) has been combed, re-combed, refined and smelted into its mettle by what was necessarily the furnace of my imagination and working practice.
So to answer the original question, haha, The LSC came from Dante, science, moral ordering and hard work for, it adds up to, nine years. Good grief. It did not ‘mature’ in my mind, but in the open, on paper, in the endless reading, note-taking, preparation in fact, and research, which enabled the long actual writing to know where it was going, though requiring still the agony of getting it right. It crept not up—it came in with a whang and stayed, and could not be denied! Until it was out. Yep, that was labour, and giving birth. Or as dear Sam might say, ‘I pause to record that I feel in extraordinary form. Delirium perhaps.’
So the ‘I’ in LSC, even given the otherness of setting and action and so on, is quite straightforwardly you? The real John Gallas transported into a dream vision?
Oh that’s me alright. Even if there’s not a big long physical description, all the views, likes, experiences, and things of the poem, as well as the things in the poem, as well as the writing about of the poem, are all me. A friend who dared to read the whole thing not long ago said to me that there were some pretty dark horrors lurking in me if I could write the Hell/Bad Place part, with its rippings and tearings and hopeless mutilations; and I find that an interesting line when it comes to being me in what I write.
I mentioned that at the moment I’m writing a collection of genuinely Me love poems: the identification of the poet with his or her thoughts and feelings sort of comes as Natural—we know Donne is Donne and Shelley is Shelley when they write with their passion held in form, and we could probably use the poems themselves to help define the real character of the poet, and we know Sassoon and Rosenberg and other War Poets are themselves, and the experience described in their poems is always, in some way or other, their experience, so the measure of love and horror and horror and love is genuinely grounded in the real person of the poet.
With a narrative (like Chaucer, or Spenser, Browning’s monologues, Lydgate or some Tennyson) we know the poet is writing the thing, and we know that the choice of subject matter, the contents and the style and the way of the story have something to do with the poet at least, though it could be a publisher’s wish, a dedicatee’s, a friend’s, but that begins to get a bit hazier and foggier and less certain. We could write a biography of Wilfred Owen and probably fix where certain experiences that turned into certain poems happened, especially if he had told someone, or written down an ‘explanation’, but if we asked Chaucer about his personal relationship with ‘The Miller’s Tale’, for example, things would be less exact.
That’s a bit waffly, but not off the point. The LSC belongs, I think, as far as Me, smack between the two. In the Chaucer way—I mean, I’ve never been there, the awful and lovely places in LSC, in the way War Poets were in relation to their poems, but I’m well in there in the way that Chaucer is with the Miller—I have written a Tale because the storyline itself appealed to me. I liked making the characters, and descriptions, and a few ‘moral points’ along the way. So that is as much Me in The LSC as saying I’ve got a beard that’s going a bit grey, bow-legs and a merry foot. This extends to the chosen manner and style of writing for the job, and the tone and point of view. Again, they’re as much me as my brown eyes.
But it’s the inner bit that’s truly interesting, because it is Deeper, if you like, and again I refer back to the friend that said I must have some pretty vile visions hidden down in my psyche to come up with what I came up with in The Bad Place and even The Better Place. She never said, ‘Oh you have some delicious visions for The Good Place,’ because that is less fascinating, personally-wise, and I acknowledge that. When you give away your character, thoughts and feelings with humour, delight, optimism and beauty, you make other people join in, and feel good also; but when you delve into the nasty depths, your readers and listeners and friends and everyone will put a distance between your imaginings, visions, descriptions, and their own, while being fascinated. I’m not sure they really think that I walk round with evil splatterings and vicious revenges bubbling round in my soul, but they do step away, and attribute it to a Writer in you, because they are wary of it, fascinated but wary.
I mean, evil is always more interesting than goodness in literature, though that is something Dante and me, if I can presume to put it that way, have tried very very very very hard to at least balance away, if not remedy. I hope my Heaven is just as Impressive as my Hell and Purgatory. Milton’s Satan, Dickens’s villains, Nazi history, even Byronic and erotic rudeness are all fascinating to people: the literary description of goodness is not that well served.
So that’s me too, the dreaming-up and the depiction of the damned and temporarily damned. The creatures forced to crawl through graters, to carry their obese parts, weighted with iron, up endless staircases, to attempt to kill other bodies with their own heads on, to be hung on heart-attack electric wires, to be strapped to cats scrabbling to get away forever, to sit in a traffic jam where the lights change once in a hundred years, and let two cars through . . . We are all capable of imagining this. And, within the tale of The LSC, it comes from me—from my indignation (righteous or not) at the immorality and unkindness and plain nastiness of some people some of the time. For it is my moral universe, and so my right to punish, while I recognise that my moral universe has to be in some way universal and acceptable for the punishments and rewards to work within The LSC for a reader, who must not find these things unsympathetic, or ridiculous, or too extreme. But it is different, very different, from Dante’s.
Within this Universe of the afterlife, there are also (to me, at least) recognisable, War-Poet-type people, locked in my memory to the things they did, from my own real past (and present). The sinners, half-sinners and good folks that feature in the poem, and there are an A–Z, 26, in each section, and all 78 are my own personal memories, in some form or other, of real people doing real things that were part of my life. So this pushes the poem, like I said, right in between the more objective tale-telling and the self-made moral universe.
But your writing voice also makes the poem highly personal.
The writing is probably more essentially me than the moral views and the imaginings of their consequences. It took me literally years and years to write The LSC, altering the tone, changing the mixed modes of writing, putting different emphases on different styles: when is humour best, when black humour, when pompous moralising, when a Becketty voice, when delerious description, plain as it can be, when little rhyming things, when scientific semi-prose, when songs, when chanting, when whatever—it is the balance of these, the labour expended in making them right, that is probably the real me in the poem.
That’s probably exactly what you didn’t ask, but there we go: it turns out that the real me in LSC is probably the me that is apparently most distant from a reader-recognisable me, i.e. my photo.
Charles Brasch once told me that he always tried to use a new word, one he’d never actively uttered or written before, whenever he wrote a piece of prose. (I assume he was thinking of things like his Landfall editorials.) But he added that he never did that in his poems. My sense of your poems, especially in The Little Sublime Comedy, is that you’re actually extending your vocabulary when you’re writing. Or do you know all those words anyway?
I think it’s a Becketty Thing. What I mean is that Beckett will often toss in a kind of overly word or phrase for the situation and/or the character—like Mrs Rooney’s ‘It is suicide to be abroad’ when she’s walking down a country lane and gets passed by a van; and Mr Slocum ‘gazing through the windscreen . . . into the void’—and the effect, which I hope to share, is comic. It’s not a matter of learning, it’s a matter of searching or researching for something to make the reader laugh and go to their dictionaries (as I had to) and to find out it’s just an over-word for ‘Sky’ or ‘sheep’, and to kind of bring them up short in their reading.
That’s quite an ambitious triple-purpose for a bit of vocabulary, but anyone who delights in words is delighted to discover or rediscover the ones that lie in the dusty recesses of the dictionary, and of usage, or unusage, and polish them up and put them in an ordinary sentence. So I guess it’s a kind of delight, as well as gentle inappropriateness that will, I hope, make the reader stop short with a smile; a kind of steeplechase jump along the track.
So, yes, I am extending my vocab as I go along, but not because I don’t know the word for an actual thing, but because I’d like to use another word for a thing for a reason: like going through the Thesaurus, which, as I’ve said, I have beside me always when I’m writing, and getting out the most extreme word for the same thing, the most generally unused and unknown word, and sticking it in amongst ordinary vocab. Of course I’m gambling on the degree of hilarity with which the reader responds both to particular words and to the method, but it bloody makes me laugh.
Also, some words have the right ring, no matter if they are plain, slightly unusual, or even over the top, and these are the words the poet uses. I’ve said before that I somehow think that poems are ready-made in Heaven, and the labourer–poet is hacking away the obstacles to reveal the Right Poem shining in its perfection already, and so getting the right word means it’s kind of out of your control. You fight on until it’s right, and you know it’s right when you find it, and nothing else will do.
Lots of times I’ve ‘finished’ a poem and had a niggling little doubt, like a tiny depression, that won’t let me rest until I go back and change that bloody word that isn’t exactly right, or that phrase that just doesn’t ring true—as if Whoever It Is, or Whatever It Is, that is holding the done poem in their care is nudging me to say you haven’t actually got it, though you’re nearly there. The certainty with which a word or phrase is chosen, and you sink back pleased and perfect, like finishing a maths problem and knowing it must be the right method because the answer is right, is always to me a pleasant miracle, and is one of the main rewards for the hell of writing. Somehow, there’s someone or something else already saying Well Done, you got it.
How about Māori words?
Why would you call a bird with a Māori name anything but the name that the Māori gave it? And why would any sane person with any kind of independent or appreciative mind call Aoraki Mount Cook? To a poet, this Naming of Parts is a fascinating thing. Aoraki may or may not be just a name, like Cook, but the subservient erasing of the one in the face of the other is, to me, weird. I mean an eggplant is also an aubergine, baingan and an egg fruit, but that doesn’t matter.
I know I’m on dodgy ground here (not politically dodgy, but in my ignorance) but by using the Māori names for birds, animals and plants in The LSC I’ve added, for myself, a hundred words to my vocab, and made (to me, anyway) the poem more New Zealandy. Not just vocab-wise, but in its world-reference. English poets have beaten the language all over the place (unfortunately bloody well) and kind of expanded the territory, and many words have become theirs, as it were. To ‘restrict’ some portions of the poem’s vocab to New Zealand alone gives a fresh truth, or a true freshness, as well as being just ‘right’. It’s as simple as that.
Using the ‘English’ name for a plant in The LSC can blandify (if that’s a word haha) the thing named, it becomes world-common, and has false (or to me, as a writer, within this particular poem, unwanted) associations with other lands and cultures. So it’s not political (though it probably is) as much as just another version of the above—finding the right word exactly that rings true. So the Thing that hovered up there (or down there) with The LSC complete in its hands, heart, soul or nivosity (look that one up) was, while I was writing it, or polishing my way clear to seeing it, told me Māori names were in it, because I felt the telling, and when I found them, they would ring true. And they did.
I wanted The LSC to sparkle and crackle: using unusual, thrilling, weird vocab to comic effect and for descriptive tours de force maintains that necessary smile and narrative drive, that pleasure—even in The Bad Place.
So did you have some sort of imaginary reader in mind when you wrote The Little Sublime Comedy?
Nope. For a poet to be looking at his or her audience while conceiving and/or writing is to make some kind—no matter how small or entire—of compromise with the common values, opinions and ways of society, literary criticism, other thinkers and writers and Hopes of Success. I sincerely hope I have made no compromises, and fashioned nothing in order to achieve anything apart from a bloody great poem.
Readers may read The LSC from a thousand points of view—as a tale, as a piece of moral thinking, as a take on Dante, as a Becketty cackle, as a Comedy (from Despair to Joy), as a series of little poems that can almost stand alone, as a New Zealand Poem, as a poetic/vocabularic/stylish exercise, and as all of those stuck together: once it leaves the yearning hothouse of the poet’s imagination and research, his or her conception and execution, it is fair game for the public, but I positively and thrillingly welcome any reception, by which I don’t mean I want a few people to read it, but that interpretation, enjoyment and evaluation are all up for grabs and I have no claim to the Right One/s.
How have you earned a living over the years? Not from poetry, I imagine. I have it in my head that you’ve been, perhaps still are, a teacher?
I’ve not lived on, off, from or by my poetry! My total accumulated writing income probably adds up to about half a year’s real-job wages. However, as all my ambition has always been in writing, I’ve had a string of jobs that left that ambition free to shape up. I have never had the slightest desire to Rise at work, have Responsibility, Lead or Head, or, to tell the truth, pay much corporate attention to Meetings, Targets or Outcomes of any kind.
After returning from NZ in 1974 I worked in Terry’s Restaurant in York as what was laughingly (as far as my skills went) called an Assistant Chef. I buttered sandwiches, filled them with chicken or jam, made tea and coffee, arranged a few cakes on a plate, and wore a white coat. Working life was gentle, with lots of gob-filling perks. After that, when I moved to Liverpool, I worked for the Victoria County History research department: that involved getting the train every day from Upholland (where I lived) to Preston, sitting in the County Records Office and reading Elizabethan secretary hand documents to extract information about the towns and villages of the area, and what their folks got up to. Great job, full of brilliant 16–17th-century stories of thieves (documented because they got caught and fined), horse-races down village streets (fined), drunken punch-ups (fined), trespass and veggie-nicking (imprisoned), illnesses of local gentry, their house-fires and weather-beaten-down trees and estates, and the occasional murder, arson, cudgel and sword.
Then I taught for a short time at a girls’ school in Shropshire, where you didn’t need a teaching qualification because it was private, and you just depended on your mother-wit, okay for me as long as I taught Eng Lit, which I mostly did, and because I enjoyed it, I went to Teacher Training College, and got the qualification. And that was the start of quite a few years of teaching English at Market Harborough. The school didn’t have any discipline problems, so it was all very pleasant and I guess there was more freedom then in what you taught, how you taught it, and how you measured results, and all that helped.
Then I took a sabbatical and went to Bursa in Turkey and taught there for a year in a small private English-teaching school. It was wild. When you are taken from your cosy(ish) existence and sent on what Bilbo Baggins would call An Adventure, your perceptions, both physical and mental, get sharpened and focused, and become more receptive, with more powerful memory, all in a kind of clearer light. It’s as if all your faculties are working overtime, it’s what people mean when they say ‘I felt really alive’ or ‘I really lived when I went there’. It’s exhausting but memorable. I wrote nothing at all, but the wide-awake quality of the year has always stayed with me, and clearly has an effect on my poetry both in content and in that zippy feeling I get when I write, which is very, very similar.
So Poetry for me is always that Adventure. We used to start the day singing the Turkish National Anthem outside, very committed and shouty, the classrooms were noisy and friendly, and I lived in a small kind of apartment in the school grounds. Of course I had Fridays off, and did lots of exploring, looking, cycling, I ate ‘out’ every night (most people did), went to Bursaspor football matches, went to Istanbul countless times on the bus in free time, and learned plenty of Turkish vocab, though not much grammar, so I must have sounded like a kind of parrot. I never managed, in that year, to become Anonymous, knowing enough Turkish, looking Turkish enough, getting by without being Spotted. That came later.
And after Turkey?
When I came home I got a job with the Leicestershire Student Support Service, teaching/helping kids that were about to be permanently excluded from school, and that lasted 25 years. For me, the perfect job: weird, tough, vulnerable, square-peg children who just didn’t get on in the Accepted Places for a whole host of reasons, who needed teaching (given what they missed), talking with, helping and sorting. We documented everything as we went along, so at 4pm I was away and free each day; for some reason I can’t be bothered to analyse, that’s when I started writing properly. Probably busy, contented, a bit proud of what I was doing, and able to cut it off and not think about it when I wasn’t there.
Halfway through those 25 years, I took a year to teach in Turkey again, this time in the far south-east corner, in Diyarbakir, at the Akademi. Wow. This was probably the most Wide-awake Adventure year of my life. It was like Bursa times ten. It was a time of great political strife between the State and the Kurds. There were army jets always flying over the city, there were rolls of barbed wire in the streets, armed children (well, army recruits, but they looked like bloody twelve-year-olds to me) in front of every bank and public building, tanks going up and down the streets, people being called away for Military Service, and strange, dark loiterings and mutterings in the Market and the shanty towns down by the Dijle. I taught school-kids in the mornings, and BP employees who wanted to speak English in the afternoons.
I could tell you a hundred stories, all true and vivid still in my mind, about that time. We used to drive into the mountains with a bottle of beer and meet the Kurdish fighters, with their (truly!) sheepskin waistcoats and criss-cross bands of bullets (one of them showed an inescapable interest in my watch); swim in the hot springs; go to the football (‘We were born for you Diyarbakırspor, and we will die for you’); watch the Kurds cut the oil pipe lines; go to Kurdish village weddings and dance in the main squares. I’d bus to places all about—Lake Van, Van, Batman, the Syrian border—see the sacred fishes, the Prophet’s footprint and bow (apparently), the castle at Doğubeyazit, Mount Ararat. Oh it was just fab, all of it, every moment.
My Big Adventure, if you could call it that, was being bitten and attacked by dogs with spiked collars in the hills behind Elazig, when I was on a misguided walk. I escaped with great wounds in my legs, got the bus back to Diyarbakır, bleeding all over the seats. RABIES! said one of my pupils, the Director of the City Hospital. Then a long, dark, Conradian adventure involving shepherds, baseball bats, vets, brain surgery, the army base at Pirinjlik, serums, injections, Kurdish revolutionaries, the state prison, sub-machine guns—you can read the whole thing in The Book With Twelve Tales (Carcanet 2008).
Sorry to go on, but this year has had an effect on all my poetry, because I Really Lived in the zippy receptive way times a hundred. The place was a riot. All my subsequent books have poems directly about this place (‘Amputeen’, ‘Little Izmet’s Wedding’, ‘Rabies!’, ‘Twin Waiters’, etc), and life since has carried its vivid mark.
Could you have stayed there, do you think?
I think the place kind of suited me from top to bottom, or from in to out. I loved its wildness, I loved its heart and soul with my own, all the way, from the hospital to sleeping on the great city walls, from the Watermelon Festival—Fellini would have loved that, little kids sitting in hollowed-out watermelons, dances with Watermelons, football supporters dressed as Watermelons (one of them couldn’t get through the turnstile and had to deconstruct)—to the crazy cinema where no one listened or watched, from the war to the Children’s Traffic Gardens, it was just an awesome thrill, which, most important of all, I became a part of. Yep, over that year I learned enough Turkish and wore a dark overcoat and became Anonymous. It was my greatest delight. No one asked who or what I was, and I passed, delighted and excited, amongst the population, enjoying all the miracles of life there, without attention. So I felt, weirdly, deeply deeply at home, though it was so—well, bad word but it sort of works—exotic.
So that vividness of brain, like I said before, resembles the poetry-making brain, and Diyarbakir has a permanent place in my thoughts, my writing, my subject matter and my way of thinking that makes me bloody go down on my knees and thank someone or something that I had the opportunity and the gumption and, sometimes, the courage, to do that year.
But now you’re, as they say, ‘retired’?
Two years ago, the government decided in its wisdom to abolish the Student Support Service, and I took the money and walked. I have never been so happy. I loved my job, but this is like being born again. To be freed from social expectations and demands is to see what matters, and how you can live. Sometimes, very rarely now, I get a Sunday paper and am amazed at the serious and often deep preoccupations shown for crap. It’s a kind of diversion from Life, or what life can be, and it has to be written about, and made to look important, so that people are encouraged to believe that some kind of half-life is life itself.
Cooking, fashion, TV, critics . . . I no longer get it. I’ve never been so happy. Love, a certain (I admit) security (house, or money, or both, or friends), my bike, my tiny caravan, the free and open world, coming home to NZ every year, exploring the Pacific Islands, and writing. And the key thing for me is that this is not a withdrawal, a kind of grumpy old bastard seeking in a few obsessions some kind of escape from a fraught world—it’s the opposite, it’s an entry, into a stripped-down existence where the soul is at work, not lying dormant, or feared, an existence where, well, it’s a bit hippy-dippy, but it’s true, you can actually Be, in a way that is You, and after all if we were born for any reason other or more than having and passing on genes, then surely we owe it to ourselves (and maybe to the world, who knows) to be ourselves, and not some Bad Faith effort.
That’s Poetry, folks!
Do you think you’re eccentric? Do you think poets, perhaps more than other writers, should be eccentric? Or is that just a bit of false Romantic nonsense?
Yup I’m eccentric, probably deeply. Superficially, I can get along quite normally in the world—house, friends, shops, travel, food, love, reading, music, films, chat, going out, all that. And of course everyone has a bit of a unique side, or a few unique things, or a few waywardy things that make them different, that’s just character. But it’s when those things sort of add up, or even get to dominate behaviour and thinking, and people notice. I mean I’m not a raving sort of weirdo, and I don’t look weird, say in the Edith Sitwell vein, and I can function quite happily in Society and its Bits, but there’s no denying my life is different not only from the Very Normal Person, but even from the Normal Person: just too much wanting to be on my own, just too much biking away and tramping away into the (comparative, in England anyway) wilds, just too little ambition at work, just too much zooming in on thoughts and ideas at a bit of a tangent in the pub, just too little care for my car, just too much awkwardness in some social times, just too much of not being a part of anything Accepted, and just too much involvement in that bloody old world of Poesy. Of course, I’m ecstatic that that’s the way it is, because I’m a happy happy man, but I’m not sure if I’m a poet because I’m an outsider, or an outsider because of the things that have made me a poet.
Let’s think about that one. We poet-folk look at the world, or see the world, or respond to the world, in a way that makes us want to or have to write, especially poetry. Now, as far as eccentricity goes, I’m not sure Donne or Chaucer or Hardy or Ted Hughes went round with a mongoose under one arm and a ribbon on a stick in the other shouting apercus, or felt themselves very much apart from the world: but Nerval did take a lobster for walks in the park, Shelley was inclined to scream at things, and Blake did frolic naked in his back garden and probably thought he had an Improving View of the Entire Universe. And although (even in these examples) the Romantic Idea of the loony, passionate poet seems embodied in plenty of poets, there are also plenty of Normals, like T.S. Eliot and Stevie Smith, who, in fact, probably wrote weirder stuff than Keats or Coleridge. Wordsworth is perhaps a nice example of Romantic whirl-away and sensible fellow in combination, and Hopkins seemed to manage an apparently quiet life. So if we’re looking for eccentric, I think it probably has to go deeper than clothes, pets, screaming or being happy being normal in suburbia.
Proust (or a version of Proust that might or might not be true) went out a bit, gathered his impressions, then went back for a far, far longer time than the real experience took, to put it into writing. Dear old Tristram Shandy (a book I completely and unconditionally love) worries that writing something up takes longer than to live it, and that he can never catch up with himself—and that puts a kind of eccentric pace, or rhythm, to a writer’s life, and yes, I think a more eccentric rhythm for a poet. And that goes deep, and into everything.
So my answer, after all that, would be that I’m eccentric in that deep poet-way, that life is there, but writing is there-there, because it takes longer than living. So it must be really really worth it, in my mind, to go aside and write. I think that reflects back, too, making experiences that matter, or might matter as you pass them, or go through them, that bit brighter, as they are always potentially the victims of a poet’s smash-and-grab. And eccentric in that I care about the way I want to express the things that matter—they don’t slip away in pub-talk, they don’t take a photograph as a substitute.
How come you have a yurt in your garden?
A few years ago I went to Mongolia for a month, and even right on arrival, with a first view of the hills and horses and great gates, coming out of the airport, felt ‘at home’. We spent lots of nights, well most nights, in yurts in Mongolia, and I loved it. They appealed because being in one had a fine, spacious, I-am-here-but-I’m-moving-on feel that I liked a lot.
Trying to account for the deeper satisfactions of the soul when sitting in a yurt is probably impossible. It might be the circular structure, the open ‘window’ in the top where the sky is always seen, the intricate but sturdy trellis-work of the walls that shift and grow sturdier in the sunlight, it might be the great beams that go from the trellis to the central wheel at the top, it might be the big floor-space, relatively free of the ‘usual’ things that you clutter your life with—and for sure it’s bloody all of those put together, which make the feeling of contentment. I don’t write there, but being in the yurt—and I’m in there every day, rain, shine, snow, heat-wave—is both a gentle push in the direction of a poem, and a zennish reward.
I have a fold-out bed/sofa, two rugs, and a chest of old LPs picked up in charity shops, which I play on the record player there. I do yoga (so novice and basic it hardly qualifies as yoga) and exercises, allow my mind to wander, but don’t write, as I said, hardly ever read, and mostly hang about on my own. So it’s the spirit, and not the deed, that lurks there.
It’s in a field next to my house, alongside a big circular herb garden that I dug to exactly the same diameter as the yurt—the garden looks a bit like Isengard, with great high, jagged stakes planted about the edges and in the middle: so there’s something mystical going on there with someone, me, who is about as mystical as a pencil sharpener. Perhaps it’s that nirvana-y thing, it’s a beautiful place where nothing is done, a place you knew you wanted and had to build, like Xanadu, and where you are, truly, at peace: the fuzzy manifestation of a happy soul.
Earlier on you talked about an alternative life as a tree surgeon? Can you imagine any other careers for yourself? Something in science maybe?
I do think sometimes about The Other Road. But it’s always from the perspective of what I am, as a writer. When writing gets sticky, tough, unrewarding, too thrilling, blue or overwhelming, I do think of being a tree surgeon, or a ploughman, or a withy-waller, if there’s such a thing, you know, some outdoorsy, folksy occupation with time to goggle at birds and beasts and listen to the undergrowth, and have bread and cheese at midday in the middle of a field. Something out of the side-bits of Hardy.
There was never any doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do with my life, and I’ve done it: and the alternative idylls feed that somehow, in a positive way. Having divided my soul in two—Here, and There—the only big decision was Place—where would I do what I wanted to do? Personal things led to my staying in England, so that New Zealand remains the soul-treat, the thought-food, the unspotted ideal, and I like that. I can live the spotted life here; New Zealand will never be ordinary to me. The fact that I write here and yearn for there seems to work in a way that the other way round wouldn’t. The little tree surgeon in my breast starts to stir and yawn and get his saw out when the plane gets somewhere round Singapore.
You also mentioned to me that I was your first tutor at Otago, and marked your very first university essay. What sort of grade did I give you?
You gave me an A– . . . I was all puffed up.